By Andrew Probyn, originally broadcast on 7.30 Report on 22nd July 2020.
ANDREW PROBYN, POLITICAL EDITOR: Torquay, on Victoria’s rugged coast, has seen many a ding-dong battle.
(Vision of a surfing competition at Bells Beach)
Bells Beach, not far from Torquay, has some of the world’s most challenging surf – a fact celebrated in celluloid.
(Excerpt from the movie Point Break)
ANDREW PROBYN: But these treacherous conditions require experience.
TORQUAY SWIMMING POOL SUPPORTER: You really need to be a proficient swimmer to be able to be a proficient surfer. Until that pools opens, I’ll be pushing very hard.
ANDREW PROBYN: An Olympic size swimming pool is planned for Torquay.
SARAH HENDERSON (In political advertisement): $20 million for a brand-new Surf Coast Aquatic Centre. This will be delivered – no ifs, no buts.
ANDREW PROBYN: In last year’s federal election, Liberal Sarah Henderson was fighting for her political life in the perennially marginal seat of Corangamite but why the Torquay pool and a dozen other pools in Coalition seats…
CHRISTIAN PORTER (In political advertisement): Hi, I’m Christian Porter.
ANDREW PROBYN: … should have been funded in the first place is still in question.
SCOTT MORRISON, PRIME MINISTER (March, 2019): The principle objective of that is to ensure that there are changing facilities and other facilities to support more girls and women’s participation in sport.
ANDREW PROBYN: A $150 million grant program to fund women’s changerooms and water safety.
BRIDGET MCKENZIE, THEN SPORTS MINISTER (July 2019): We’ve got young women getting changed in cars, we’ve got people getting changed behind towels.
ANDREW PROBYN: It sounded like a boon for community sport and sporting organisations across the country set about dusting off their priority lists.
One day before Scott Morrison called the election on April 11, an executive from one of the nation’s major sporting codes sent an email to the Prime Minister’s office, Senator McKenzie’s office and the office of Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack.
EMAIL FROM EXECUTIVE: Please see attached a spreadsheet of priority projects that may be deemed eligible for funding under the Female Changeroom Fund.
ANDREW PROBYN: The Deputy Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Damian Callachor, was first to respond.
EMAIL FROM DAMIAN CALLACHOR: Appreciate the list, very helpful and comprehensive.
The Government will be establishing guidelines for this program in due course, so we will be in touch following the election with more details.
EMAIL FROM SPORTS EXECUTIVE: Thanks for this info, Damian. Is the intention therefore that the fund won’t be utilised pre-election?
EMAIL FROM DAMIAN CALLACHOR: A program of this nature and size needs appropriate guidelines, governance and other matters lined up before we can open it to industry to apply for funding. Cheers, Damian.
ANDREW PROBYN: The very next day the Prime Minister announced Parliament would be dissolved and just three days later, news Torquay would get its pool broke in the Geelong Advertiser, surprising even the council.
GEOFFREY WATSON QC, FORMER ICAC PROSECUTOR: The email discloses two things. One is that the Government was aware that it required governance, that was breached.
The other thing is the email shows that the allocation shouldn’t have been made because it could possibly interfere with the election process. That was breached.
TORQUAY SWIMMING POOL SUPPORTER: We don’t care where the money comes from. Build it and we will swim.
ANDREW PROBYN: The ABC understands that the sports executive who was told there would be no grants before guidelines were in place was from Cricket Australia – though the organisation would not confirm this when approached by 7.30.
Back in March we approached Michael McCormack with some questions about the scheme.
(At press conference) Mr McCormack, can you confirm that major sporting codes contacted your office before the election last year inquiring about the guidelines that would be behind this funding?
MICHAEL MCCORMACK, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, major sporting organisations always inquire about guidelines but indeed any of these guidelines are always publicly available.
ANDREW PROBYN: Your chief of staff, Damian Callagher …
MICHAEL MCCORMACK: Callachor.
ANDREW PROBYN: Callachor, told major sporting codes that guidelines would be coming. That they would be coming, according to the incoming brief, in fact, that they’d be coming in June last year. There are no guidelines. Still aren’t any guidelines?
MICHAEL MCCORMACK: But indeed, that’s just not a, that wasn’t just a program for prior to the election or just after the election.
That’s a program that we’re rolling out continuously and as with …
ANDREW PROBYN: It’s already been spent minister.
MICHAEL MCCORMACK: Well, not all the money is being spent just like with the sports grants.
ANDREW PROBYN: Today Mr McCormack’s office said the Government was simply delivering election promises and that Labor had made similar pledges.
The majority of the Female Facilities Fund was allocated during the election campaign.
The lion’s share, some $120 million, went towards 14 swimming pools – all in 11 must-hold Coalition seats.
Just $12 million was spent on changerooms mostly in Liberal or National held seats.
The Government has never released any guidelines for the program, nor have sports organisations been invited to apply for what’s left in the kitty.
GEOFFREY WATSON: Proper process obviously puts the guidelines in place before the money is allocated.
ANDREW PROBYN: Today a parliamentary inquiry heard the Infrastructure Department is no longer responsible for the fund.
RACHEL BACON, DEPARTMENT OF INFRASTRUCTURE: No Senator. We actually didn’t commence work in developing the guidelines before the program was transferred to Health.
ANDREW PROBYN: The inquiry has been looking into that other sports grants program – the one that cost Senator McKenzie her ministerial career – where grants were infamously guided by a colour coded spreadsheet denoting political party.
The nation’s top public servant and Scott Morrison’s former chief-of-staff quizzed over his review of the then Sports Minister’s conduct.
PHIL GAETJENS, DEPARTMENT OF PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET: I was asked to inquire about the Minister’s apparent breaches of the ministerial standards. I did that. She resigned.
GEOFFREY WATSON: The Government just can’t manipulate public money so they can pour it into marginal electorates.
It perverts the election process
What we need is a federal anti-corruption body which can investigate this, explain what has gone wrong and possibly do something about it to prevent it occurring again.
ANDREW PROBYN: The sports rorts scandal that dominated politics at the start of the year might seem long ago but in a pandemic induced recession, money will be tighter than ever.
The public should expect the strongest of standards and accountability.